What kind of man wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings? What were his formative experiences? Finnish director Dome Karukoski tries to answer those questions by portraying the early life of the famed author in the new film Tolkien. (Spoilers follow.) We first encounter Tolkien (played by Nicholas Hoult) in the trenches of the Great War, searching for his friend and fellow officer, Geoffrey Bache Smith. This storyline is the thread we repeatedly return to as the film unfolds.
In flashbacks we see the younger Tolkien (a winsome, intelligent Harry Gilby) distraught at the prospect of moving from rural Warwickshire to grimy Birmingham. His father is dead, his mother ill and poor. (She was largely cut off by her family after becoming a Catholic, but the film doesn’t mention this.) “We are facing some difficult times and are fortunate to have the Church to support us,” his mother says. She dies shortly thereafter and Tolkien becomes the ward of Fr Francis Morgan, a sturdy Oratorian priest (Colm Meaney).
Tolkien conceives an affection for fellow orphan Edith Bratt (played as a girl by Mimi Keene and as a woman by Lily Collins), despite her Protestantism. He enters King Edward’s School and displays a precocious talent for languages. With three fellow pupils – Rob Gilson, Christopher Wiseman and the aforementioned Smith – he forms a club centred on poetry, music, art, and high moral purpose.
Concerned that Tolkien is being distracted from his academic work, Fr Francis forbids him from contacting Edith until he turns 21. Tolkien dutifully focuses on his studies and wins a much-coveted scholarship to Oxford.
At 21, he declares to Edith his continuing love, only to discover she’s engaged to another man. Tolkien convinces her to break it off. He then leaves to fight in France.
This returns us to where we started: Tolkien on the Somme, searching for Smith, whose last letter prayed: “God bless you, my dear John Ronald, and may you say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them, if such be my lot.” In a violent, veritably hellish sequence, Tolkien realises that Smith is already dead.
Back in England, Tolkien meets Smith’s mother and informs her that her son not only had a gentle, loving heart but also that his poetry deserves to be published and that he, Tolkien, will write the foreword.
Jumping ahead a decade or more, Tolkien explains to Edith, now his wife, and their four children that he’s writing a story of his own. It begins, “In a hole in the ground there lived a …” He hesitates before finding the word “hobbit”. Roll credits.
This handsome, earnest, yet overstuffed and poorly paced film deviates frequently from the historical record. Most seriously, it ignores Tolkien’s devout Christian faith: there is no indication that he served Mass daily as a boy or ever even entered a Catholic church. His punch-ups with Wiseman and drunken night-time profanities are, in comparison, unimportant inventions.
But departures from reality are inevitable in dramatisations, and enumerating them can quickly devolve into captiousness. What’s more relevant is whether the artistic licence results in a successful story. One expects a biopic to sit somewhat loose to the facts, yet one hopes it will also hold the attention and make one care about the characters, however far from real life they may diverge.
A helpful comparison is Richard Attenborough’s Shadowlands, the story of CS Lewis’s late marriage. It’s worthless as an account of actual events, but works brilliantly as a movie: engaging, well-structured, powerful and poignant.
Here, with Lewis’s friend Tolkien, it’s a different story. Incidents come thick and fast, but are strangely uninvolving. Screenwriters David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford present various possible motives for Tolkien’s behaviour, but it’s unclear what animates him, and Hoult’s unconvincing, un-Edwardian performance doesn’t make good the lack.
I never felt I knew what this Tolkien really wanted. To honour his late mother? Escape poverty? Belong to a club? Marry Edith? Invent languages? Write mythic fantasy?
The film repeatedly suggests that he wants above all to find Smith – in which task he’s helped by a fictitious, alarmingly Baldrick-like batman, Sam Hodges. Smith is earlier shown to have a tender love for his friends, and an especial sensitivity towards Tolkien. The scene between Tolkien and Smith’s mother serves retroactively to make Smith a more profound figure, but at this point the story needs narrative resolutions with regard to Tolkien, not unexpected complexity with regard to a supporting role.
When wondering how to comfort bereaved mothers, Fr Francis confesses: “Modern words are useless … I speak the liturgy.” This modern-feeling account of Tolkien’s life likewise falls short, both biographically and dramatically. For versions more reliable and moving, I will be turning to the works of John Garth, Stratford Caldecott and others. I recommend you do the same.
Fr Michael Ward is the co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to CS Lewis. Tolkien (PG/PG-13, 112 mins) is released today in the UK and on May 10 in the US